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Bonne Cheetah, our trusty pack horse, is a big help - until she escapes. (Bruce Kikby for The Globe and Mail/Bruce Kikby for The Globe and Mail)
Bonne Cheetah, our trusty pack horse, is a big help - until she escapes. (Bruce Kikby for The Globe and Mail/Bruce Kikby for The Globe and Mail)

High in the Georgia mountains our pack horse escapes - the chase is on Add to ...

This summer, the bestselling travel author is deep in the Georgia Caucasus, with family in tow. This is part of a series:

Cresting the snowy Zagaro Pass, a lush valley spread below us, and we descended into its warmth. Soon we were pressing through wildflowers which grew shoulder high, and rhubarb with leaves as large as pizza boxes, their stalks as thick as baseball bats. A pungent smell of growth and decay filled the still air. Along with such verdant growth came bugs. Swarms of them, attacking any exposed skin. We had to stop.

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Beyond the abandoned and crumbling Soviet sanatorium of Koreldacshi, we raced to set up camp in a small meadow. Within minutes the tent was up, and we stuffed the children inside, away from the clouds of no-see-ums and horse flies. After hurriedly cooking pasta (while slapping wrists and ankles) and eating atop our sleeping bags, bedtime stories were read, and blessedly, both kids drifted off.

Wandering down to the nearby river, I was taking pictures of the crashing torrent when Christine’s loud whistle carried over the air.

She was signalling frantically for me to come back, and as I dashed toward camp, my mind swirled with worry.

“Bonne Cheetah got free!” Christine waved and pointed down the trail.

“He went that way. Sandro [our young Georgian companion]is chasing him.”

My first thought was thank goodness the kids are okay; a loose pack horse is not the end of the world. Bonne Cheetah had managed to pull the stake we tethered her with from the swampy ground, and had headed back up the trail, toward her home, and the 2,700-metre pass we had just crossed.

I reckoned she would stop and graze within a few hundred meters, but as her hoof marks carried on upward, I grew more worried. After 10 minutes I caught up to Sandro, who was in flip-flops. For over an hour we climbed, easily able to make out Bonne Cheetah’s prints on the trail ahead. Finally, in the alpine highlands, I caught a glimpse of her beside a distant stream, and we ran even harder, breathless and dripping with sweat.

But we arrived to find only a steaming pile of fresh manure. And prints leading further upward, toward the snow.

The sun had already kissed the high peaks, turning them a brilliant orange. Now the light was fading fast, and we made a quick decision.

I would sprint back to camp to spend the night with Christine and the kids. Sandro would carry on to the nearby village of Ushguli, where Bonne Cheetah would most likely head, to reunite with the horse herd she had met while passing through.

At a full gallop, I made it back to our tent just as shadows engulfed the trail and the first stars appeared overhead. With Bodi and Taj safely sleeping, and Christine brewing tea on our small camping stove, the world felt right. The bugs had disappeared with the cool of evening. Christine and I lay on our tarp outside the tent, and watched a satellite race across the dark sky. Mars flickered its distinctive red. We could buy another horse if we needed.

Luckily, we didn’t need to. Sandro appeared the next morning, riding Bonne Cheetah bareback. She had indeed returned to Ushguli, and a phone call to the previous owner revealed the trick to recapturing her: Hold out a handful of salt and softly call her real name, Panchita. She was named, it turns out, after a popular Portuguese soap opera character. Oh, the drama.



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